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The marimba is a recent addition to the list of “acceptable” solo instruments in a concert setting, having only graced the stages of concert halls in the last century. However, the instrument’s versatile capabilities have elevated it to the status of a respected concert instrument. While marimba recitals still occur with less frequency than violin and piano concerts, it should be noted that the instrument has seen a rise in popularity in the last sixty years, thanks to the efforts of such performers as Vida Chenoweth, Leigh Howard Stevens, and Keiko Abe. Gwendolyn Dease can count herself among these giants of the marimba, with her impeccable technique and exciting musicianship. The reviewer, who holds two degrees in percussion performance and has seen almost a hundred marimba performances, can say without a doubt that Dease’s performance was the finest recital on the instrument he has attended to date. The Brevard Music Center (which hosted the event as part of their monthly concert series at UNC-Asheville’s Reuter Center), should be commended for featuring such a talented artist.
The concert opened with “Beij Flor,” by New Jersey based jazz vibraphonist, arranger and composer Behn Gillece. The title is Portuguese for hummingbird, and this was aptly reflected in the musical gestures of the work. “Beij Flor” opened with a gentle ostinato, built on a dreamy extended minor chord that gently rippled through the resonant Reuter Center hall. Dease expertly coordinated this opening gesture as a left-hand ostinato while evoking the soft fluttering of a hummingbird’s wing with an exquisitely controlled one-handed roll in her right hand.
The following selection was J.S. Bach’s classic Lute Suite in E minor, a work that translates especially well to the marimba. The reviewer has heard many performances of this work, on lute, guitar, and marimba, and was especially impressed by the clarity of Dease’s phrasing. Her lyrical coordination of the melody was never obfuscated by the abundant ornamentation of Bach’s writing, which Dease also played with immaculate taste. Superb technique met graceful musicality in the Allemande and Gigue, when Dease coordinated single independent strokes in the left hand with effortless mastery all while bringing out the cascading melody and accompanying counterpoint of her third and fourth mallets. Dease eloquently captured the contrapuntal texture of these last two movements with exquisite fluidity, each of her four mallets sounding as individual voices in a larger polyphonic tapestry.
In stark contrast to the Bach were two works by contemporary composer Paul Lansky. Three Moves and Spirals represent departures for Lansky, a composer who is more widely known for his electronic compositions. However, it became clear that the wide dynamic contrasts and complex polyphonic interplay of Lansky’s electronic works were strong influences in his marimba writing, producing some exceptionally difficult music for a marimba soloist. Both works featured rapid interval changes, counterpoint separated by several octaves (requiring some extremely creative footwork and hand-eye coordination on the part of the performer), and constant motion, where even one memory slip could easily derail the entire performance. Dease, in spite of these challenges, was up to the task of playing Lansky’s otherwise uncharacteristic writing for the marimba. Her graceful accuracy was reinforced by sensitivity to the enormous dynamic spectrum of both pieces. Dease struck powerful chords with resounding brilliance that emanated throughout the entire hall, but was just as effective in emphasizing the softer dynamics of the works – at one point she was so quiet that the reviewer’s ears were able to catch the sound of leaves rustling in the wind just outside the venue’s doors.
The cerebral and machine-like insistency of Lansky’s writing was nicely contrasted by two movements from Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango. Originally written for flute and guitar, the latter part is often performed on marimba. Joining Dease was flutist Dilshad Posnock, whose wonderfully controlled playing especially shone when beautiful yet powerful tones emanated from the lowest register of her instrument. Dease did a marvelous job emulating the guitar part with her nuanced marimba playing, playfully rolling chords with all the flair of a flamenco guitarist’s rasgueado.
The concert ended with Alejandro Vinao’s “Khan Variations,” a monumental staple of the marimba repertoire, and one of the most difficult pieces to date written for the instrument. A polyrhythmic escapade based on a Pakistani melody, Vinao’s work showcased the full range of Dease’s virtuosity, as she explored the intricate rhythmic web of variations with unrelenting precision and musical sensitivity. Simply performing this work with rhythmic accuracy is an enormous challenge, but Dease gave an impeccable musical performance, always bringing out the haunting melody even when her mallets were engaged in a fury of complex counterpoint and rhythmic permutations. “Khan Variations” provided an exhilarating conclusion to the eclectic recital, and Dease received a well-deserved standing ovation. It is this reviewer’s hope that Brevard Music Center will continue to feature Dease as a soloist both during her residency as faculty in the summer and throughout the academic year.